Chaffetz was born and raised in Los Gatos, a wealthy, Democratic-voting California suburb near San Jose. That he didn’t become a Democrat himself is something of a surprise. His father, John, was briefly married to a woman with the maiden name Kitty Dickson; after they divorced, she married a young Massachusetts politician named Michael Dukakis. Jason would do some work for his famous semi-relative’s 1988 presidential campaign. For a while, that was all the political experience he had.
In high school, Chaffetz made the move from soccer to the football team. Recruited by Brigham Young University, he moved to Utah, kicking for the school’s perennially overperforming squad. Here were the first hints of Chaffetz’s future stardom. When he started to make it in politics, his teammates would recall how, after successful kicks, he would remove his helmet to reveal a perfect head of hair for the TV cameras.
Chaffetz immersed himself in the culture of the Beehive State. He converted to Mormonism, and decided to make Utah his home.
Chaffetz’s first job, which he held for a decade, was as a spokesman for a beauty company called Nu Skin. He underwent a political conversion there. When the company hired former President Ronald Reagan as a motivational speaker, Chaffetz was assigned to work with Reagan while he pep-talked Nu Skin employees. Reagan’s politics rubbed off on Chaffetz. Seeing Reagan off at the airport, he got an autograph and a pair of his new hero’s cuff links. He has called it the experience that made him a conservative.
When Chaffetz re-entered politics, he was working for Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., a Republican with moderate streaks who is now the Obama administration’s ambassador to China. Chaffetz left Huntsman’s staff to pursue a prize that had long dangled just out of reach of Utah conservatives—the House seat held by Republican Chris Cannon.
On paper, Cannon had a nearly perfect record. But only nearly. Why, activists wondered, did one of the country’s most Republican districts put up with a lawmaker who backed comprehensive immigration reform and supported a plan to give a House vote to D.C.? Sure, it would hand a vote to Utah, too, giving the state the seat it narrowly missed out on in the 2000 Census. But Chaffetz called it unconstitutional, and argued that the state didn’t need to compromise.
“It was a political bribe,” Chaffetz says. “We were going to get a new district in 2012 anyway. Why would we want to dilute our vote?”
At first, Chaffetz looked like the weakest opponent Cannon had ever faced. But Chaffetz picked up on something new in Utah. He became a sort of proto-Tea Party candidate, building an army of unpaid volunteers—over a thousand, according to the Provo Daily Herald—and out-hustling Cannon on a $200,000 budget. Chaffetz crushed Cannon by 20 points.
“The extremists who don’t want to win elections have taken over the party,” Cannon said on election night, putting the lid on his political career. Shell-shocked, he refused to endorse Chaffetz. “We don’t want that to happen in Utah. Politics is way too important to leave to the boors.”
Beating Cannon meant Chaffetz was heading to Congress. He cruised to a 38-point win over his Democratic opponent and became one of the very, very few fresh Republican faces in the 111th Congress. That was when he bought the cot, inked the CNN deal, and started making trouble for the District. After his first unhappy exchange with Norton, the voting rights bill started to move through the House. Chaffetz testified against it.
“Chris Cannon was good on voting rights,” remembers Norton. “It was a shame, when he was sent home, and he was replaced by someone who was dead-set against us.”
Chaffetz’s stand on voting rights was the one he had campaigned on: If it wasn’t in the Constitution, he was against it. Democrats didn’t hear him out, but Republicans did. Behind the scenes he worked on the other members of his delegation, pressing his two-part case: follow the Constitution, wait four years. It worked. On Feb. 22, his fellow Utah Republican, Sen. Bob Bennett, had told The Salt Lake Tribune that he’d “probably” vote for cloture. After Chaffetz helped make the once-obscure measure a conservative cause, he would change his mind.
By May, Bennett would lose the GOP nomination for his own seat to a Tea Party-backed challenger. In the current political environment, Republicans deviate from the party line at their own peril. Thanks in part to Chaffetz, D.C. issues are part of that party line.
The 1994 Republican takeover of Congress doesn’t leave many lessons for what might happen to D.C. if the GOP seizes power again this fall. Sixteen years ago, the GOP was clear about its agenda for the District. Republicans reacted uneasily to the post-prison return of Marion Barry, elected in 1994 at the same time as the nation sent a GOP Congress to D.C. A year later, appalled at the city’s budget problems, lawmakers imposed the Financial Control Board, stripping some power from the mayor’s office.
At the time, the Gingrich revolutionaries had some wild ideas for how government should work, and they wanted to test them here—where, after all, no one’s constituents had to live with the results. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was personally invested in turning the city into a laboratory for school vouchers. Republicans like Georgia’s Bob Barr legislatively forbade the city from even counting the votes of its medical-marijuana referendum in 1998.
Jason Chaffetz's Cotside Chats
Timeline: D.C. under Home Rule
The nation's capitol, Washington, D.C., has governed itself since 1973—kinda. Despite the passing of the Home Rule Charter, which delegated power to an elected mayor and 13-member D.C. Council, Congress still oversees the District. View a timeline of Home Rule in D.C., along with a video series of Congress' greatest hits on the District, from Boy Scouts to Needle Exchange.
Tell Provo What To Do!
If Jason Chaffetz, from Utah, can tell the District how to run its government, why shouldn't Washingtonians vote on how his hometown works? For example...
In Utah County, where Provo is located, the rules for marriage licenses specify the applicants must be “male and female.” Clearly, the District’s enlightened attitude toward gay marriage hasn’t made its way out west yet. Let’s put that to a vote. (After all, at $50 a pop, the licenses could help the county keep its books balanced—and every little bit helps!)